If these walls could talk

2018-02-09 16:33
‘As I walked through the hallowed halls of buildings that were nearly 140 years old, I got a sense of the culture and pride that this school has upheld so fiercely.’

‘As I walked through the hallowed halls of buildings that were nearly 140 years old, I got a sense of the culture and pride that this school has upheld so fiercely.’ (Supplied)

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For as long as I can remember I’ve wondered what on Earth goes on behind those enormous redbrick walls in the heart of Pietermaritzburg, baring the name Russell High. Having recently taken a new path in my career, I was led reluctantly right to the heart of this formidable building. News spread quickly and as soon as friends, family and colleagues found out that I was going to be doing my teaching prac at this historic school, they all insisted on detailed feedback on what went on behind this secretive, intimidating exterior.

Declared a national monument in 1979, people say it reminds them of a mental asylum or a jail of sorts. But what I found on the inside was far from anything that any of us could ever have imagined. It is in fact difficult to put in to words. The school claims to offer “Education with heart”, as the school motto states. But what it offers is a world-class education that seems to be frozen in time. As I walked through the hallowed halls of buildings that were nearly 140 years old, I got a sense of the culture and pride that this school has upheld so fiercely.

If these walls could talk, this grand old lady would tell you of the history and tradition that are cemented into the fabric of this school. Opening its doors to its first pupils in 1879, the roots of Russell High run deep into the life and history of Pietermaritzburg. The archives show pictures of Chapel Street before it was even a street. The school was first advertised in The Natal Witness on January 23, 1879. If you check your history books, the battle of Isandlwana took place the day before.

There are stories of how, while people were fleeing and boarding ships in Durban, the staff at Russell High were feverishly barricading the streets preparing for siege. Thankfully the state of affairs settled and Miss Broome and her team could successfully open the school on March 6 in the west room of the high school building. A triumph at last, as it must be noted that what parents desired for their daughters 100 years ago was separate schools for both boys and girls, so as to “spare girls from the association of any rough male element”. How very intuitive of them indeed.

One-hundred-and-thirty-seven years and numerous headmistresses later, these walls would tell you of the soft-spoken lady principal, who is so passionate about her work, that you can feel it in all she does. She is unwavering in both her love for the girls and her discipline. She leads the school with a quiet strength that motivates us all to be better. She has put structures and support in place to ensure that the school runs like a well-oiled machine. There are processes and protocols for everything, including teenage pregnancy. Her message is clear: just be the best that you can be.

That is all she asks of any girl. She is not unapproachable in anyway; the girls are invited to create a personal development plan and go and discuss with her how they see themselves making it a reality. She supports them in every endeavour, be it in the classroom, on the sports field or on the stage.

These walls would boast of how the school has managed to attract and retain some of the city’s finest teachers, many of them coming from private school posts beforehand. They like to say that these girls are getting a private school education for government school fees. They are talented, motivated and masters of their trades; it’s easy to see why the girls are inspired by them. The staff room is a happy place full of friends from all walks of life, exchanging ideas and stories. It is always said that the staff room says a lot about the happiness of a school.

When I joined the school for my short six-week practical, I had no idea that I would become so attached in such a short space of time. As a fleeting newcomer, I was welcomed into their close-knit family and made to feel as if I belonged. Like all of the other staff members there, I found myself reluctant to leave.

I got a sense that this is real education, how it is supposed to be, how it used to be in the days of old. The teachers aren’t distracted by parents making unreasonable demands of them, they are focused on what works best for their girls.

One only has to look out during assembly at this sea of beautiful faces to know that they are getting the best that we have to offer, within humble means. Russell’s resources are not impressive but their hearts are.

You may notice at times that the walls may have some condensation running down them, those would be the tears. The social problems that our youth face today are at times insurmountable, and if one thinks too much about it or asks too many questions it could overcome you on a daily basis. But then there are tears of sheer joy and triumph. When watching these girls sing in their inter-house choir competition or watching them dance, one gets a sense that everything may just turn out okay in this wonderfully diverse country of ours.

These girls are our future leaders and the majority of them really understand that education is their only ticket to success. They wear their uniforms with pride, all the better when bedazzled with braiding and badges. The staff often joke about the girls being “Russelled” — meaning that if they are part of the school for a long enough time, they eventually become a Russell girl that we can all be proud of.

The word “pride” is something that is spoken about at every turn. The girls are implored to take pride in their school, in their appearance, in their conduct. And in doing so, they will be rewarded with one of life’s greatest assets: self-respect. Only once you respect yourself, can you respect and tolerate others. Diversity is something to be respected, celebrated and enjoyed by each and every South African.

These ageing walls would tell of the paint peeling, cracks in the plaster and ceilings falling down. The hail storm of 2014 damaged the roof to such an extent that extensive repair work is required. The school is still waiting for the Department of Education to come to its aide. Does anybody other than those directly associated with the school really care? If this dilapidation is allowed to continue to this extent, the building would be rendered an empty, meaningless monument. It would be an unspeakable tragedy. It is schools like Russell that give this country true meaning and hope. It is over-subscribed every year, tragically turning away young hopeful girls whose fate is left to be accepted by anyone who will take them, no matter how inconvenient the commute.

There’s something called the “Russell wave” where the girls raise their right hands and wave a cupped hand in a very ladylike fashion (similar to the queen’s wave) to show their love or appreciation of something. No one can tell me exactly when or how this wave come into existence, but it’s a “thing”. At first I found it a little strange, but I soon realised that it bonded us all together in a little secret that only we know.

I attended two drama functions at night with our girls and I was proud to be sitting in the Russell section. And when our girls came on to stage all the hands went up silently, as if to say: “Shine Russell shine!”

These girls have a real shot of becoming some of the most successful women in South Africa, our senior leaders (prefects) would impress the harshest of critics. Their futures and, more importantly, the futures of their little sisters and their daughters all rest precariously in the hands of our education system. I challenge any person to spend a day in this school and then be prepared to let these girls down.

There were moments during my prac where I found myself brought to tears, tears of emotion or hope or pride, I can’t be sure. I thought I was being childish and too involved for a student teacher, when I realised that as I looked over at all of my colleagues they too were feeling what I was feeling.

The Russell heart beats strong and is completely contagious. I could feel it hammering inside of my chest as I took my final walk out the front doors and handed back my keys. I have never been more proudly South African and I can assure you that spending six weeks at this school was not nearly enough.

If these walls could talk, they would tell you that I submitted my CV to the principal within 48 hours of being there.

About the Writer:

Kirsten Franz has returned to Pietermaritzburg to raise her family after spending 10 years in Cape Town and abroad. She is a brave mother to three boisterous boys who keep her on her toes 24/7. In an attempt to escape the wild west, sword fighting and ninja antics, she decided to study her PGCE as a matter of urgency. She has spent the past two years studying though Unisa, completing an internship at The Wykeham Collegiate and is now a qualified English and drama teacher. She takes immense joy in teaching anyone old enough not to talk about trains, tractors or lego. In her free time you’ll find her hiking in the Drakensburg, diving in Mozambique or having a lot of fun with her family and friends.


Read more on:    pietermaritzburg

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